Tag Archives: Korean film

Aloners

Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is a solitary 20-something creature. She’s the top employee at a call centre where everyone is insulated by a cubicle and a set of headphones, but even when the headphones are off, Jina eats alone. Earbuds in, she walks home in her little bubble, never glancing up from her phone. She doesn’t notice or respond to anyone – not the next door neighbour, nor her father, nor the thump from a nearby apartment.

One day, Jina’s treasured solitude is pierced thoughtlessly by her boss, demanding that she train a new employee, a responsibility not normally in Jina’s purview. Once her impenetrable forcefield has been breached, it’s quickly followed by a second, more troubling violation. Her neighbour is found dead, alone in his apartment. Does this worry her? Scare her? Certainly it makes her meditate on her own death, whether she’ll be alone in the end, whether that’s the end she’d want. Does Jina truly enjoy her aloneness, or is it actually motivated by a fear of rejection, or perversely, a fear of being alone?

For her debut feature, director Hong Sung-eun tackles the concept of holojok, a Korean phenomenon encompassing the growing number of people who prefer to live alone (already a third of homes in Seoul!). Whether this is a true preference or if people have just succumbed to their antisocial tendencies and fear of alienation is more or less what Aloners tries to address.

The film is subtle, tender, and rather intimate. Jina is never judged, and she’s clearly not alone in experiencing this strange dissonance. Gong strikes the perfect balance as a woman forced out of the comfort of her shell, negotiating a world she normally avoids. There’s not much in the way of plot let alone drama or tension, but Hong holds our interest by building layers of mood, complexity of thought, and a changing atmosphere that make Jina’s world feel full, even when there’s an absence of people.

Aloners is an official selection of TIFF21.

Minari

This perfect little movie made my heart sing today. It’s humble and understated but flawlessly distills everything that is right about life and love and family and hope into a simple yet effective cinematic microcosm.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his family from their small apartment in California to a farm in Arkansas. Well, a potential farm, at least. It has promise. At the moment it’s a small plot of land, a trailer, and a dream. Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t as enthusiastic about this dream, or about the trailer, or about leaving California, but she’s going along with it because finally her mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) will be able to join them. Little David (Alan Kim) isn’t so keen on Grandma Soonja – she smells like Korea and swears like a sailor and prefers to gamble at cards than bake cookies like other grandmothers do. This Grandma’s a dud and she sleeps in his room!

Jacob and Monica work at a local hatchery sexing chickens. David and sister Anne (Noel Cho) go to church to save on babysitting. Jacob and a religious zealot named Paul (Will Patton) plant seeds and irrigate the land. Soonja gets addicted to Mountain Dew. Minari is the story of an immigrant family in search of the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas. It may not be the typical experience, but it does manage to feel universal. At its heart, Minari is about family – about where we plant roots, how we cultivate intimacy, why a home is not the building that houses us but the people who live inside.

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung allows the story to unfold naturally, never pushing us into emotions but quietly earning them nonetheless. The film is semi-autobiographical and benefits from Chung’s store of intimate details that really make his story come alive. They help establish a sense of time and place, an important backdrop to this family’s origin story. The Yi family is at a critical juncture; these hardships will either pull them apart or cement them together. Their instability puts a lot of stress on them, and what starts as a fight between mom and dad trickles down to insecurity in the children. Only Grandma, who has certainly seen much worse, is a constant source of strength and love. Little David doesn’t always love her back, in fact sometimes he’s downright cruel, but Grandma has nothing but love for him – just not the kind he’s become accustomed to from American sitcoms. It takes him a while to warm up to her, but their relationship is the best part of the movie.

Minari is named after a Korean plant, a resilient little bigger that has the strength and tenacity to grow even in rough soil. The movie, likewise, is deceptively simple, but once you crack the nut, its insides are warm and nourishing. The film is disarming, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Chung finds a perfect balance between the bitter and the sweet.
 

Minari is releasing on all digital and on-demand platforms across Canada on February 26th.

Space Sweepers

In 2092, forests have vanished and deserts spread over the land. Fading sun and acidic soil mean plants have disappeared and home has become unlivable. Fleeing the dying Earth, UTS Corporation builds a new orbiting home for humanity, but only a chosen few can ascend, and the head of the Corporation (Richard Armitage) has plans to unveil a new habitat on Mars, leaving those on Earth to their fate.

Meanwhile, a ship of non-UTS citizens search for valuable scraps. Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Seon-kyu Jin), Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), plus a robot named Bubs are a bunch of misfits and outcasts who do dirty work because they’re broke, collectively and individually, and badly in need of cash. And then a little girl puts a wrench in their plans.

Dorothy is no ordinary kid, she’s actually a highly weaponized android that merely looks like a 7 year old girl. A bomb, basically, in the busy little body of a child. Not only is a bomb an obvious threat to their ship, but Dorothy is pursued by a few different factions, and any one of them is ready to sacrifice the whole crew of a space sweeper ship to get their hands on her. Our resourceful sweepers resolve to sell her to the highest bidder in order to turn a tidy profit, but along the way they grow pretty attached to the munchkin, even though she’s not quite what she seemed.

Space Sweepers isn’t a great movie, but it’s perfectly serviceable if you like space robot sci-fi action dramas about the inevitable end of the world and the humans who continue to destroy it even beyond its breaking point. It’s effects heavy, action heavy, explosion heavy, fun heavy. The story is secondary, and arguably sometimes gets in the way. We’re here to see robots in space and little girls explode and apocalyptic terrorism, let’s not get up in our feelings. If dumb fun is in your future, this little adventure can be found on Netflix.

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is a 2003 film by recent Oscar darling Bong Joon Ho. A remastered version is coming out this month, a perfect excuse to revisit this remarkable classic.

In 1986, Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) are two humble detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in their small South Korean province, already an unusual occurrence. But when the murderer strikes several more times with the same pattern, the inexperienced detectives realize that they are chasing the country’s first documented serial killer. Their skills and gear are rudimentary, so it’s good old fashioned detecting for these two, piecing together the clues in an attempt to solve this important case.

Bong Joon Ho has a unique and inimitable cinematic voice. The film starts out almost bumbling, with a tendency toward slapstick. His signature satire is ever-present, nuanced and cleverly hidden in plain sight underneath broad comedy. Genres blend and tone veers wildly from the expected course, but neither undermines what is ultimately a serious theme. Bong Joon Ho is slowly building to some very real thrills not to mention one hell of a climax.

The detectives’ increasing desperation is well played by a talented cast, including BJH’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang Ho, reflecting tragedy, futility, and humanity. It’s a complex and gripping story about the people tortured by a case well after the victims’ suffering has ended, with consequences that leak beyond professional borders.

Bong Joon Ho takes the time to find beauty, even amid such a brutal emotional and political landscape. The way he juxtaposes images can be as startling as it is brilliant, the effect culminating in a truly unusual film that transcends genre and communicates a fragile and subtle sympathy.

Memories of Murder is a modern masterpiece; look for the remastered release in select theatres beginning this weekend.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky

BLACKPINK doesn’t like to be thought of as “just K-pop” and while you can quibble about the “just” part, the “K-pop” is hard to argue.

South Korea’s government rather brilliantly decided to really invest in its arts some years ago, knowing that they could be the nation’s most important exports. With considerable funding and a business approach, today its video games, television series, and movies have global appeal and success; last year Parasite took home the top Oscar, the first time ever for a foreign-language film. However, one could argue that music, namely K-pop, is South Korea’s greatest triumph, and I’m not just talking Gagnam Style. BTS fever has replicated the same fervour as Beatlemania once did. BLACKPINK became the first K-pop group to play Coachella. South Korea has a well-oiled machine churning out pop acts, and Blackpink may be more than K-pop, but they’re certainly also representative of it.

Children as young as 11 may enter this special training academy of song and dance and while most will eventually be asked to leave for failing to make the grade, others may last as long as a decade in the system, honing the skills and the look for eventual distribution into a group. Nothing left to chance, nothing unorchestrated, individuals are evaluated on a weekly basis, and asked to perform as a group in a rotating roster until something gels and a foursome such as Blackpink is plucked from obscurity for pop superstardom.

This documentary weaves in home videos of each of the girls, audition reels, practice footage, and video from their massive world tour to recreate the massive few years they’ve just had. And of course, hearing from Jennie, Lisa, Jisoo, and Rosé, we get to know a little bit about the personalities behind the carefully curated personas. It’s nothing that YG Entertainment (the parent company that recruited, trained, and launched the group, among others) doesn’t want you to know, but if it’s not quite as “all-access” as billed, it’s still plenty informative and loaded with charm.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky will give K-pop novices a look behind the scenes at the grueling selection process of putting together a group, and will please fans with previously unseen footage and personal interviews with each member. You can watch it now on Netflix.

Hungry for more? Check out BLACKPINK review and music on Youtube.

#Alive

Just a week or two ago, Sean and I were doing the Fantasia Film Festival thing and were about to watch a movie called Alive, for which I’d read the following synopsis: The rapid spread of an unknown infection has left an entire city in ungovernable chaos, but one survivor remains alive in isolation. It’s funny how we watch movies differently now that we’ve been living in pandemic-related isolation ourselves. Now I can’t even watch people in movies without face masks without feeling a bit of a fever coming on. But it turns out we were watching a different movie, also called Alive, no hashtag, and only now are we getting around to the more social media ready one, which is in fact the one with the raging infection.

Oh Joon-woo (Ah-In Yoo) wakes up alone in his apartment. His parents and sisters have gotten an early start, and Joon-woo isn’t exactly an early bird. Although he appears to be more or less a grown man, they’ve left him grocery money to restock the fridge, and his mother’s last plea is that he not spend the whole time playing video games while they’re away. Commence: video games! Except this turns out not to be just another ordinary day in Joon-woo’s life, as attested by the running and screaming of seemingly everyone else in his high-rise apartment building. Bits of news filter in from various media: some sort of infection transferred through blood is making victims extra violent and quite cannibalistic. You and I might call them zombies, or at least we did before we started battling super-bugs in real life. What will our zombie movies look like now? I bet they’ll cough.

A garbled final message from his parents implores him to survive, so he vows to stay in his apartment, but a) you’ll remember he never went for groceries and b) his apartment isn’t exactly invulnerable. Many days later, on the brink of starvation and in the throes of understandable depression, Joon-woo is all but resigned to his death when a laser pointer indicates another human presence. Out his window he sees that someone else has survived in the building across from his – a young woman named Kim Yoo-bin (Shin-Hye Park). Too far apart for real communication, and with flesh-craving zombies crawling around both their buildings and the parking lot between them, they remain alone but just a little less lonely.

I’m fond of movies that are about how life goes on even during the worst of circumstances, like how little boys still need to live their childhoods, even in Nazi Germany (Jojo Rabbit). And how romance can bloom even while a blood thirsty army is banging down your door. Ideal circumstances? Definitely not. But since when has that stopped anyone?

Director Il Cho navigates the complexities of a zombie-horror-romance in the smart phone age with blood, guts, and selfie sticks. Plus vlogs and drones for good measure. South Korea often does horror very well, and while I might not put this in Train to Busan territory, it’s a pretty decent watch, and since we are, for the most part, still social distancing as much as possible, it’s a good reason to stay home and stay safe, and let others take the stupid risks and internalize those consequences.

Stay #home, stay #Alive.

The Handmaiden

During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) lives on a large countryside estate with her abusive uncle. A new handmaid, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) arrives in the house to assist her, only the two bond in unexpected ways.

But what Hideko doesn’t know is that Sook-Hee was raised in a den of thieves – and pickpockets, forgers, human traffickers, and so on. A fellow criminal, playing the long con and posing as Japanese gentleman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), came to her with a proposal. Lady Hideko stands to inherit a vast fortune. If Sook-Hee agrees to help Hideko fall in love with him, they’ll rob her of her money and have her locked up in a madhouse. Sook-Hee accepts. But as she encourages Hideko’s seduction, she herself is falling for the lady, but her poverty and pride won’t let feelings get in the way of fortune.

The Handmaiden is an exceedingly beautifully-shot film with a score that sounds an awful lot like Downton Abbey. It’s loosely based on Sarah Waters’ crime novel, Fingersmith, but director Chan-wook Park (yes, the very same who gave us Oldboy) has his fingerprints all over this adaptation. His interpretation is visually luscious, of course, and the story more complex than it seems. This one too cleverly hints at the various power dynamics at play – between sexes, classes, and even colonized and colonizer.

While the erotic scenes are somewhat familiar and cliched, one bathtub scene involving a thimble will go down in the history books as a delightfully powerful lesbian maneuver. The Handmaiden is lush and decadent and often disturbing.

Hit-And-Run Squad

Korea is a machine. Honestly, I can’t help but admire the country’s dedication to arts and culture. Decades ago, the government assessed their economic standing and realized that they were vulnerable. If just one of its leading industries failed, it would take down the whole country with it. So they diversified in a way that few if any country ever has: they pumped tonnes and tonnes of money into developing culture – music, television, movies, and video games. South Korea has a population of just over 50 million, but chances are you’ve heard of their boy band invasion (BTS!), you’ve played their games (they’ve mostly developed computer gaming, like Overwatch and League of Legends), and you’ve seen some of their cinema’s best (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host or Snowpiercer or Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, for example). And this is despite the fact that most of us don’t speak Korean! American audiences have been notoriously difficult to penetrate with foreign languages. They hate subtitles and expect to be able to sing along to everything on the radio. But that’s changing, perhaps in part due to greater inclusivity and appreciation for other cultures, but mostly because the Korean machine is just so damn irrepressible.

That said, it feels like Korea might be poised to take over the world, and I might worry about that a bit if not for this: if the lung cancer doesn’t get them, the misogyny will. According to actual statistics, only about 40% of Korean men smoke (which is objectively pretty high), but in cinema, it’s nearly 100%. But misogyny is definitely 100%. And here’s the weird thing that I’ve been twisting around in my mind. America has a comparable rate of misogyny, it’s just that over here, we have this pretense that abuse should be closeted. We know it happens. If it happens behind closed doors, we can all look away and pretend otherwise. It’s embarrassing when it goes public because then we have to pretend to care. Not actually care. No nonnononono. The justice system makes that clear: we will not intervene until he kills her. Then we will be angry: boo! We’ll put him in magazines and make movies about him, and if he’s handsome then we’ll REALLY shake our heads. But as long as he keeps it quiet and private, we’ll let that shit happen for years. And even if it becomes public, we’re still often sympathetic, and might even vilify the women, for good measure. Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Josh Brolin, Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin, Michael Fassbender, and Christian Bale have all been accused of domestic violence, and we’ve seemingly given them a pass. In South Korean movies, however, violence against women is a little more upfront. The men are not afraid to toss around a woman like they might toss around any man in a common barfight, or even beat a subordinate who hasn’t done her job well. It’s a lot of equal opportunity violence, whereas over here, we “pride” ourselves on only hurting our wives and girlfriends and daughters in the privacy of our homes. Is that fucked up or what?

Anyway, to the movie. Hit and Run Squad will be a little difficult to summarize, but here’s my lame attempt. Officer Eun Shi-Yeon (Hyo-jin Kong) is investigating government corruption – particularly a case in which a very successful Formula 1 driver, Jung (Jung-suk Jo), is paying off the police commissioner. Tricky. But that investigation gets botched and Officer Eun gets demoted to the hit-and-run squad, where she’s teamed with Seo Min-Jae (Jun-yeol Ryu), an unambitious, spacey looking dude who just happens to be the Sherlock Holmes of hit and runs. And the hit and run squad just happens to also be looking at Jung for an ‘accident’ possibly involving one of his cars.

One thing is abundantly clear: Jung is a very bad dude. But he’s also nearly untouchable. But Eun is persistent and Seo is motivated in his own way; it also turns out that he’s got an interesting past that might start to bleed into the present, with both positive and negative repercussions.

Hit-And-Run Squad is a police procedural, but Korean dramas tend to have it all: comedy, romance, melodrama, highs and lows. South Korea’s primary television export tends to be their soap operas, and a lot of their films feel touched by a telenovela. At one point, this movie was scored overdramatically by a jazzy saxophone accompanied by insistent snapping, and it felt very much Too Much, but you have to look past these foibles in Korean cinema, because it’s not quite how we like to do things here, but if we kept ourselves in the tiny box of American cinema, we’d never have any fun.

The cinematography is pretty great, the car chases feel urgent and dangerous, and it’s fun to see them take place literally anywhere but Atlanta once in a while. The acting was quite good too, or at least the actors were adept at working with what they’re given. While it’s nice to see a female lead, and Officer Eun is undoubtedly the film’s lead and the audience placeholder, she’s the least compelling character, having been given no back story and very little development. She’s overshadowed not just by Jung and Seo, but by a couple of even lesser male protagonists as well. There’s a trio of important women in the film but they’re extremely one-dimensional and depressingly primitively drawn.

Of course, if you’re here for hot cars and top speeds, you likely won’t care that a female officer is reprimanded at work by blows to the head until she bleeds, and that her ability to bleed is one of the few things we know about her. Heck, you might even be into jazzy sax, in which case, more power to you.